fiction
autumn/winter 2016

Paying

by Kem Joy Ukwu

Photo: Chuck Huru

          Your mother told you that you would not always need her, that you would not always need your siblings, that you would not always need your friends. She told you this after you showed her your diamond ring.
          I did it, you told her, I got engaged. She became enraged, her eyes lighting up the way your ring did, bright and blistering.
          Your ring’s glistening but your future isn’t, she insisted.  
          She proceeded to tell you what you would always need. She said it as urgently as you knew she needed it. 
          Money. You need to make your own, she said. Your fiancé makes a lot of money but his cash won’t be your cash, she said. 
          If he makes it, he can take it and if he can take it, he can retain it and if he retains it, he maintains you, sustains you, ultimately detains you, she said disdainfully. 
          I let your father make the checks but we didn’t cash them, he did. He gave me what he thought was mandatory for the week, maybe for the month. I spent it on you and your sisters when I could have saved it for myself. I should have, she said.  
          I have the house but that’s it. Who’s preserving it? Nobody. Because I can’t afford to preserve my life, let alone this tomb I call my home.
         Why tomb, you asked her. Not all your childhood memories were joyful but there must have been smiles here and there, laughter once in a while in her one-story house, you thought. 
         Ask your sisters why they never come to visit, she replied. 
         You didn’t need to ask them, you knew. 
         Your mother left your family one time when you were six years old. She returned two days later because she had nowhere to go beyond those forty-eight hours. She described her two-day departure as subscribing to something – the first month was free then the bills came.
         She did make the best of things or at least she tried. Your father struck your mother often, your older sisters told you. You tried to remember those times but couldn’t. Maybe wouldn’t.
         Your father died when you were thirteen. Your mother shed tears after learning most of the money he made he gave to another woman. He had almost nothing saved. Maybe the house was a casket after all.
         Your mother worked two part-time jobs to maintain her house and continued to do so when she reached an age when she would have instead retired. For years, your sisters have told her to sell the house. Breathe new life into an affordable apartment, new walls where she could make new memories, where she wouldn’t have to pay for much, just rent and utilities, food and toiletries. 
         She refused. 
         Sell the house, you encouraged her further, backing up your sisters who weren’t there with you. Sell the house and I will matriculate into a college, you negotiated. I will earn my bachelor’s degree, you said. I will produce my own money.
        Twisting the diamond on your finger to face the inside of your palm, you repeated your request. You must live with your past but maybe you can trade it in too, you said, trade it for some equity. Make your own money. Make your own future.
         She shook her head before shaking your hand. She pried open your fist and turned your ring back around so your diamond would show again. She stared at it.
         She mumbled sorry. You weren’t certain if the word was her decision, an apology, a description or some kind of empathy. 
         You wondered what drew your mother to your father in the first place. Did she agree to share her life with him because she loved him? If she loved him, what for? Maybe he promised to take care of her. Maybe he bought this coffin to peddle her that promise.
          I’m marrying my fiancé because he’s a good person, you told her. He made me no promises, you said. He never needed to because I observed who he is, you said, I took my time to see how he treats other people, not only me. This ice on my left ring finger, you said, is only the icing.
         She nodded with a shrug of her shoulders and said marvelous for you, excellent of you, congratulations to you. 
         Then your mother said, make your own money still
         She said she had no money. She said she wouldn’t be able to help pay for your wedding.
         You already knew that. You were never going to ask her for that. You told her she didn’t need to pay for anything.  
         She offered a laugh. I’m always paying, she said.

Kem Joy Ukwu's fiction has appeared in BLACKBERRY: a magazine, PANK, Carve, TINGE, Blue Lake Review, Jabberwock Review and Day One. In April 2016, she served as an Institute Scholar in the Writing from the Margins Institute at Bloomfield College. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband. More of her work can be found at kemjoyukwu.com.

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